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Sunday, January 19, 2014

The First Three, Part 1: Wagner's "Psychograph"

There's a quote about the planchette's invention that's rather grown on me, as it so perfectly recognizes the tedious boredom that's ultimately responsible for sparking the invention of devices that will ultimately culminate in the Ouija board. It's from Louis Figuier's 1860 treatise, Les Table Tournantes, and he's talking about alphabet-calling and table-rapping, which, before the invention of the planchette, was the most efficient form of cooperative spirit communication. Even in an age before radio and television, when minds weren't constantly barraged by social media updates and numbed toward the expectation of instant gratification, sitting in the dark, spelling out communications one letter and rap at a time, could still be incredibly boring. His very next sentence after this one introduces the planchette's invention, but first he takes a moment to grind an axe over many dark hours spent waiting for rapped-out responses:
"it [alphabet-calling] was only a poor means of correspondence, and we know nothing more tedious than those endless meetings, in which we had considerable time and attention to compose responses from the table with an alphabet convention."
It's telling, I think, and after the table-tipping fad had run its course in both American and Europe, sympathetic inventors strove to refine that laborious method by one way or another, and enterprising entrepreneurs sought to turn a profit from them. And thank goodness--their results over the decades are why we're here! In this 3-part series, we examine the earliest fruits of those labors: the first three commercially-available alphabetic-spelling devices for autonomous spirit communication. Up first: Adolphus Wagner's "Psychograph."

A collaborative 2010 effort between the author and Ouija historian Robert
Murch to reconstruct the Wagner Psychograph from period descriptions
translated by the late talking board researcher Ed O'Brian. How accurate did
it turn out to be? Read on!

Even in the earliest days of their introductions, there was always some contention with who held the dubious distinction of "first" when it came to refined devices for spirit communication. Before this new information came to light, it was assumed that only two inventors vied closely for the crown: German composer Adolphus Theodore Wagner, and American clockmaker Isaac Pease. And that wasn't an entirely inaccurate assumption given what we knew. Wagner's hold on the world's claim as first to file for a patent on a talking board device is currently undisputed, with his "Psychograph," or "Apparatus for Indicating Person's Thoughts by the Agency of Nervous Electricity" application filed January 14, 1854, in London. But despite his application, Wagner's Psychograph competed for attention with another contender--Pease's Spiritual Telegraph Dial--in the earliest press coverage of the items (in this case, the January 12, 1854 New York Daily Tribune), when both parties announced their inventions at approximately the same time in America. Even at that time, those concerned with propriety struggled with which device was invented first:
"As is the case with the steamboat and the electric telegraph, the glory of first applying labor-saving machinery to spiritual rappings, cannot be claimed as exclusively American, or at least, the claim will be disputed by foreign nations. Mr. Pease's letter is dated on Dec. 5, last, but we learn from Berlin, that as early as Nov. 15, the Baron Lieut Col. von Forstner had exhibited at a public lecture in that city, a machine called the Psychograph, the invention of a Mr. Wagner, which we must say, seems rather ahead of the Spiritual Telegraph Dial. This German apparatus is so arranged that the ghosts not only point to the letters of the alphabet, but when they feel like it, can employ a pencil held by the machine over a sheet of paper convenient for their use. It is even said that poetry, (we hope it was much above the usual level of ghostly lyrics,) was written down in that way, and very tolerable jokes made by the machine before a public audience, without the intervention of any human hand At least, so it is related in respectable journals, while with regard to Baron Lieut Col. von Forstner, we can testify that he is a man of character and repute."
Unknown to either Pease or the editors of the Tribune, Wagner had been at his work longer than the Americans suspected. The first mention comes in a June 1853 edition of Bonplandia, Volume 1 by Wilhelm Eduard Gottfried Seemann, who briefly recounted:
“We must also mention here the "Psychograph" of the music director Wagner in Berlin, an instrument which, constructed in the form of so-called cranesbill*, is brought to a letter by the applied hand without the user being aware of the contents of the written word.”

*Note that in Seemann's original German vernacular, "storchschnabel" translates to the English word "cranesbill," which was slang for the pantograph. 
But that brief snippet is but a tease of a much more exhaustive account. Murch and I owe a huge debt of gratitude to the late, great researcher of talking board history for providing the initial document that sparked the hunt: Ed O'Brian. In Ed's archives (note Ed also discovered the Wagner patent in the London archives), we rediscovered translations of documents showing that Wagner was introducing his device much earlier than the Tribune has supposed.

The account is dated July 12, 1853, now 5 years past the worldwide explosion in a belief in spirit communication spurred by the events in the Fox Sister's Hydesville, New York home. It is by a respected gentleman of Berlin society--Baron Lieut Col. A. von Forstner--who sat down to pen a soon-to-be-published testimonial regarding his introduction to Adolphus Wagner's incredible invention there. Written just "a few days" before the letter's publication, this pronouncement and the earlier newspaper blurb set a firm provenance to award the distinction of "first" to the Germans, many months before the Tribune's report in America. And, it should be noted, these events are nearly simultaneous with Kardec's accounts attributing the planchette's invention to Parisian seance-sitters in the summer of 1853 (though the earliest evidence we have for the planchette's first commercial availability is two years later in Paris, in 1855). 

So, there we are. Unless some compelling evidence surfaces that Pease was at work on his device much, much earlier than he himself claimed (and it may be that the currently un-digitized newspaper, the Spiritual Telegraph, holds those clues, given Pease's role as a distributor of that paper), Wagner remains the undisputed "first" among both talking board inventors and patent applications. So we begin with the Germans.

GB173: Wagner's 1854 London patent application for his Psychograph device
There are great differences in the forms and intents of use of these early devices. Unlike Pease's invention, which sought to transform the the autonomous movement of household furniture used for spiritual table tipping and rapping into a spelling device by the means of weighted pulleys and an alphabet dial, the Psychograph was a self-contained unit that relied not on the movement of an attached table, but rather the direct influence of the sitter's hands on the device itself--just as the French were concurrently discovering with planchettes. 

Mr. O'Brian's instincts were right in recognizing the importance of Baron von Forstner's account, as it is a goldmine of information on the Psychograph's earliest days:
"Herr Conductor Wagner (who approved this report for publication) most cordially allowed us to invite several friends and acquaintances to an inspection of the instrument and its performance yesterday afternoon [July 11, 1853], and all witnesses, fifteen in number, were completely satisfied by the phenomena; they gladly granted me permission to publish their names in this report of mine; I cite them (omitting the names of five ladies present) below, just as they signed a sheet of paper themselves: Dr. Scharschmidt, Prof. Lammatsch along with his son, Colonel von Roehl, First Lieutenant von Eberstein, Major von Berg, Paymaster D. Hornung, Consul Schiller from Memel, Lieutenant v. Forstner (son of [your] correspondent)." 
One participant, in particular, will become more important than Wagner might have realized, and he could not have known he was setting up his own rival, as we'll see in the Part 3 of this series. 

Baron Forstner went on to describe the item in minute detail in an entry that stretches nearly 2 pages, giving us the most complete account of the item right down to the measurements of its individual components. Just to give you an example of the exhaustiveness of this descriptive narrative without boring the pants off more casual readers, I'll post a brief snippet. I'll also spare you the poetry and communications received, as they're of the usual variety. If you want the rest, you'll have to email me:
"The instrument is essentially no different than the pantograph that is well known in practical geometry (for reduction of drawings), made entirely of wood with the necessary changes. An equilateral rectangle, we shall designate it by A B C D, [made] of moulding some 1 inch wide and l/4 inch thick, slides into itself by means of pins in the corners; the sides are 8 inches long and each of them extends a few inches; only endpoint A has no extension of the sides opposite it, but right alongside it is a housing perpendicular below, through which a pin is stuck; we shall call this pin the pointer...
...This is the instrument so far. The second part of the apparatus is now a sheet of paper (on cardboard, the size of an octavo sheet), on which the ten digits from 0 to 9 (arranged in two rows), and the letters of the alphabet (arranged in five rows) are located along with other characters, such as punctuation marks, some mathematical signs, and the like; the two first kinds of signs (the numbers and letters) however are enough. This sheet, attached to the surface of the table with wire tacks, is now placed on the table so that the above mentioned pointer can move freely to each sign..."
It was through this description that, in 2010, Bob Murch and I assembled around my kitchen table (how appropriate) and attempted to artistically reconstruct the Psychograph, line-by-line, using Photoshop and snippets of old patent drawings of similar devices to make our model. That's the drawing you see above. I'm still quite proud of the results, even if I was initially disappointed on that day when I finally spotted a contemporary illustration, to see the device depicted with 5 paddles. But it seems there may have been either variations or artistic license, particularly since Forstner's description implied only 3 paddles, AND a February 1854 account from the German Morning Newspaper for Educated Readers that provided an account nearly as exhaustive as Forstner's, which stated "Three of the corners of the square the ends extend beyond the square, and these ends carry round wooden discs." In any case, I think the drawing served its purpose as a "have-you-seen-me" wanted poster quite well. But we don't have to rely on this depiction anymore, because my chase of documents in languages-I-don't-speak finally led me to two depictions, one of which is contemporary.
The 1854 depiction, from German bookseller J.G. Cotta's newspaper "Morning Paper for Educated Readers."
The 1854 depiction is incredible, and, true to Forstner's and Cotta's descriptions, pretty much a modified pantograph. It is missing the glass plate Forstner described that facilitated smooth movement. It is also worth noting that this version is also missing an accessory that Forstner actually describes as optional. It seems obvious that in the absence of inheritance of the pantograph's supporting wheels, that the Psychograph would be doomed to sag under the pressure of the hands of 5 sitters. To account for this, Forstner notes:
"Now in order to give the instrument still another necessary stopping point, another pin below the disk in the extension of side B C could be attached as described above (moving on the glass plate); although Herr Wagner has given preference to catgut instead, leading from D to the upper part of the aforementioned support."
The "upper part of the aforementioned support" refers to the main table-clamp, and the "catgut" to a taut supporting thread attached to it, meant to counteract any flacidity imposed by the dead weight of the sitter's hands. This addition was likely a requirement in the absence of wheels, and is luckily depicted, though somewhat posthumously, in Gurtis Herausber's 1921 book, Stimmen aus einer andern Welt Wache Träume und metaphysische Phantasien:
From Gurtis Herausber's Stimmen aus einer andern Welt Wache Träume und metaphysische Phantasien, 1921.
Despite Forstner's enthusiastic endorsement and news of the device reaching American shores, we don't have much indication of how well the Psychograph performed commercially. We know it retailed for 5 thalers, which at least one reviewer called a "schwindel"--a swindle. But it seems it at least sold hundreds, as Wagner was quoted in 1854, in a style emulating later device-manufacturing peers from Kirby to T.H. White to William Fuld: "that hundreds of people, at society's highest levels, were already convinced of the wonderful benefits of Psychographs, and many of them are already experimenting in their own family circles." And it did well enough that he was attempting to paten the item in London.

If public mockery--as it so often is--marks the true moment of arrival of a cultural phenomenon, then by November of 1853 crowns the date of the Psychograph's recognition, when it was the subject of a humorous limerick in Kladderdash, which was the equivalent of the UK's Punch

The Psychograph had its detractors as well. In an 1854 letter to A. von Humbolt, K.A. Varnhagen described the device as one of many “solche ungeheuerlichkeiten”—“monstrous absurdities” plaguing Berlin seance circles, and that his own generally disapproved of such foolishness, and that he has grown tired of the phenomenon.

It is likely that the Psychograph simply rode the brief wave of popularity in table-tipping in Europe, and was discarded from the public's consciousness just as rapidly, as the phenomenon faded rather abruptly in Europe after a surge of experimentation. Wagner's device had served its purpose for some short time, at least, or, as Cotta had said at the time: "This invention thus exalts the great effort involved in counting the raps of lengthy table correspondence to get to a whole word and to get up to complete sentences, moving quickly from letter to letter." Though it might have sped up communications, it couldn't slow down the fade of table-tipping's popularity in the eyes of a fickle public, and, if anything, the expedient communications it provided may have very well help wagon-jumping enthusiasts reach the end of that chapter more swiftly before moving on to the next cultural fad.

Wagner's Psychograph does not seem to have ever physically reached American shores, though by applying for its patent, its inventor must have held some ambition to push it into London's then burgeoning Spiritualist scene, recently sparked by Maria Hayden's tenure there. It is also worth noting, in closing, that the Psychograph--with the replacement of the pointer with a pencil--was also convertible to an automatic-writing device, as detailed in at least two sources, including Vollmer's 1856 Naturkräfte und Naturgesetze: populäres Handbuch der Physik zum Selbstunterricht für die Gebildeten jeden Standes. Elektricität, Magnetismus, Galvanismus.

That's the Psychograph on its own merits, and though our next installment will return to American shores to observe the rise of the Pease's Spiritual Telegraph Dial, we'll see both Wagner and the Psychograph again in Part 3 of this series (along with Baron Forstner), where a close acquaintance develops a competing device in Berlin that leads to a bitter public feud. Until then, we hope you'll tune in for Part 2: Pease's Spiritual Telegraph Dial

Edit February 2, 2013: While timelining some planchette history, I rediscovered this account by early planchette maker Thomas Welton of London, who claimed that Wagner was living in London in 1852, even going so far as to provide an address. While I think his date is off by a year or two, it might explain why Wagner disappears from the Berlin scene, and why the London patent application shows up, then fails to be properly completed. The account is from Welton's 1884 Mental Magic:
In conclusion, I beg to say that the whole subject is by no means a modern one. At all events, the Planchette was preceded by a prior invention analogous to it, but not identical with it; for, in 1852, a German residing in Orchard Street, Portman Square, advertised an article for a similar purpose. It was cumbrous, complicated, and expensive; and so it failed, though true. Many of your readers must remember Rutter's Magnetoscope and its curious results ; and for the last 35 years I have frequently made to order vitomagnetic machines, of which the Planchette is but one. You must therefore excuse me if I acquit our American cousins of having stolen a march on us in the case of the Planchette.

I use two woods only in the manufacture of Planchettes—one is perfumed, scarce, and expensive; the other, of a cheaper and commoner kind. The cost of a Planchette is 10s. 6d. or 7s. respectively.*
I am, your obedient Servant, THOMAS WELTON. 35, George Street, Euston Road, London.

 * [And strongly recommended on occult grounds by my own sensitive, one of the most clear and reliable natural Lucides now in England; all other imitation Planchettes being imperfectly, therefore unsatisfactorily constructed.—Robt. H. Fryar.] See the Rev. J. M. Spear's psychometrical-word picture of her power—end of Miscellanea. 

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